Kyo Maclear : on Roy Ito
First of all let me say that what surprised me most about Roy Ito’s diary was its candor and contemporariness. It is full of emotion and humor. At the same time it feels as though it was written for posterity, though not in the sense that it is overly sanitized. (In fact, the diary is full of half-articulated thoughts, impulsive tangents, and illegible script—giving it an ad-hoc, unplotted feel.) What I meant is that Roy seemed to have had a good handle on who he was and how he was seen and how recording the specificity of his experience might have wider relevance.
I was personally very drawn to the diary and the way it lends an intimacy to that period of time. I think what unites a lot of my past work is the theme of history told at a human scale. How do the individuals inside collective events experience them? We all know, for example, that during WWII Japanese Canadians lost their place in society, lost their livelihood and dignity virtually overnight, but how was that seismic upheaval experienced by one family?
Or to pose a more timeless question: What does it really feel like on a personal level to wake up and realize that the country you thought of as home has no special regard for you? (I say “timeless” because such was the recent experience of Canadian citizen Maher Arar who spent a year in a Syrian prison, detained and tortured for unfounded terrorism links.)
When I was reading through Roy’s diary I came across a reference he makes to a song called “My Devotion”. It immediately caught my attention because it gave me a sense of how he was connected to the popular culture of his day. To me, there is nothing that captures an era as much as its songs. Even the most commercial, schlocky, overplayed ballads can have very particular autobiographical significance.
So I did a bit of research and discovered that “My Devotion” was a popular song in 1942. It has since been recorded by a number of artists including The Angels, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, the Bud Powell Trio, and Dinah Washington.
The thing about “My Devotion” is that it is a love song at one level and a war song at another level. It has that doubleness. The object of devotion could be a girl named Mitsy or a country named Canada.
Now, as we know, devotion has many expressions. In its more benign form, it can be a simple statement of commitment or fidelity, but in its extreme, it can take the form of fundamentalism—whether that is religious extremism, lockstep nationalism, filial sacrifice, or obsessive love. So devotion can have a sinister edge. At wartime or times of crisis, its evocation can be used to quash dissent or internal debate. John McCain’s incessant campaign mantra, “Country First”, which defined loyalty in exceedingly narrow terms, is just one recent example of how flag-waving demands compliant silence.
For Roy, devotion is a fickle thing. He writes as much in his diary. I think this was true of many Nikkei enlistees. Of course, there may have been some Japanese Canadians and Americans who joined the war efforts with a clear sense of patriotism, but I think even these men found their loyalty tested by the casual and not-so-casual racism they met in the service. I remember reading, for instance, about the famous 442nd Infantry Regiment of Japanese Americans. These were men who sacrificed their lives fighting for a country that was interning their families. And the worst of it was that when these soldiers died their families were not even granted passes to attend the funerals. So that was the situation at the time. For a Nikkei man to enlist begged the painful question of what values he was fighting for—a question not unique to World War II, and, in fact, one that could be spoken by Muslim Canadian and American enlistees today.
But getting back to Roy’s diary, I wanted to express his feelings of uncertain or hesitant allegiance. I decided that animation was the approach I wanted to take. It was my first sketchy stab at it! I used iMovie and just proceeded frame by frame. I wanted the animation to convey that cool, grey, watery mood of ambivalence that recurs throughout the diary. I started with an image of Roy in a service uniform jumping on a diving board. For me, it was a personal image that related to my own fears of heights, but also conveyed that “prior” feeling just before you plunge into the depths of anything unknown.
My husband, David Wall, is a singer and composer so he helped me re-record “My Devotion”. We added reverb so it would sound spacey and atmospheric. I ended up whistling the melody at the end, overlapping with the sound of waves, as Roy’s diary excerpt scrolls across the screen.
It’s hard not to feel chilled as you listen carefully to the words of the song and imagine Roy demonstrating faithfulness to a country that was hostile to the rights of his community.
Today, the context is different, but I am still fascinated by the question of devotion and what binds us to an ideal or a country; how far we’ll go to belong and be loved. (It’s a theme that in some respects plays a part in my first novel, The Letter Opener.)
I was reading the newspaper recently and there was an interview with South African novelist Damon Galgut in which he says: “I have this theory that countries with a tormented history bind you to them much more closely than those with, shall we say, a more placid past.” Leaving aside the fact that most countries have a tormented history and that a legacy of bloodshed typically underlies nostalgic boasts of a ‘placid’ or peaceful past (in the sense that it is the victors rather than the vanquished who customarily pen the stories that get relayed as history), leaving all this aside, I think Galgut touches on something very interesting about loyalty and allegiance: It is so rarely untroubled.
Why do women stay in abusive relationships? Why do captives sometimes come to love their captors? Why did thousands of men from the Caribbean—part of the British Commonwealth—volunteer for the British Armed Forces during the Second World War; most had never been to Britain and did not have any British blood but they referred to it as “the Motherland”? Why did Nikkei men enlist when their families were still interned? Why do poor men from West Virginia go to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan on behalf of a country that cares and does little to alleviate their impoverishment?
I feel as though I could turn these issues of allegiance and devotion over and over in my mind and never run out of questions.
The greatest challenge of this project was also it’s greatest aspect—working with artists from across the country. It was amazing getting to know Cindy, Baco and Julie better. The support we gave each other across our different disciplines felt truly collaborative. I would jump at the opportunity to work with this group again. I love the idea of using new formats (example, the web) to approach old material. It’s a way of keeping history alive and contemporary, while putting digital and analog worlds in conversation.
Kyo Maclear is a Toronto-based novelist and visual arts writer. Here essays and art criticism have appeared widely. Her debut novel, The Letter Opened, was published by HarperCollins Canada in 2007. The Montreal Gazette described it as “rich and seamless tapestry – like the masterful Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, Maclear creates a layered world that is both real and dream-like.” She is currently at work on her second novel.